I was so excited to complete cancer treatment, but it never occurred to me that I might feel differently the day after it ended. I spent 18 months receiving constant care, and then all of a sudden I was done, cancer-free, and sent back out into the world. "I'll see you in three months," my doctor said with a smile. I was surprised, then, to realize that I felt lost and abandoned: on my own with no supervision and no one checking my vital signs to make sure I was OK. The difference was stark: While I was in treatment, I was fully engaged in my care; when treatment ended, my focus changed from actively dealing with the cancer to just hoping it wouldn't come back.
As it turns out, my reaction was quite common. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) even provides a booklet called "Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment" that addresses this feeling of loss that comes with the end of regular interactions with medical staff. There is no quick fix for these feelings of disconnect, but know that they will usually ease with time as you adjust to your new reality.
The New Normal
When my treatment ended, I wanted to resume my pre-cancer life, just as if I'd just taken a little detour, but it didn't work that way. Most of us have to adjust: Rethink some of the ways we used to do things, reevaluate relationships, and adjust to a body that does not function in the same way. Cancer treatment is often life-changing, and we need to accommodate that change in our subsequent lifestyle. Our perception of who we are is often based on our pre-cancer selves; this can be frustrating until we are ready to accept changes and move forward, instead of trying to go back to the way we were.
For some people, this new normal can be difficult at first. It may mean finally facing the truth about an unhealthy relationship or lifestyle habit, but finally embracing and making those changes can get your new life off to a great start as you consciously choose healthier interactions, habits, and routines.
No Set Schedule
Friends, family, and employers mean well when they expect you to go right back to the way you used to be before treatment. They want you to be well, and it may not occur to them that recovery can take longer than the treatment does. Fatigue, pain, memory and concentration issues, and other side effects can linger for months or years, so it's important to give yourself time to heal. You may need to ask your loved ones and employer for understanding. If you are having trouble with your employer in particular, Cancer and Careers is a wonderful resource for advice and help.
Fear of Recurrence
The likelihood of cancer returning or metastasizing varies with the pathology of your cancer, but post-treatment fear of recurrence is common. Every ailment can get the mind racing, wondering if the cancer has returned. Vigilance is important, of course, because earlier intervention is essential to treatment, but we can't run to the emergency room for every headache.
As a means of nipping these feelings in the bud, talk to your doctor at the end treatment regarding which symptoms should be referred to your oncologist and which symptoms should be discussed with your primary-care provider. Ask your oncologist to give your primary-care provider a summary of your cancer treatment and any side effects or other health issues encountered during treatment.
One day, I finally admitted to my doctor that I was worried about overreacting to symptoms. This admission opened up a conversation with her that eased my mind and helped us clear the air. We talked about a list of possible symptoms and what the proper reactions were for each of them. This improved my understanding and helped relieve a great deal of stress for me and my family.
No matter what they're derived from, stress, anxiety, and depression are common issues for cancer survivors, but you don't have to carry these feelings alone. Help is available! At the least, discuss these issues with your doctor and go over ways to manage and alleviate them.
Above all else, know that you are not alone: There are close to 14 million cancer survivors in the United States, according to NCI. Support groups are a great way to connect with other survivors; it really helps to see others living positive, fulfilling lives after treatment.
You've got this! You are fully capable of getting out there and taking this second shot at cancer-free life. Make it amazing!